Sunday March 11, 2007
Making his mark on the world
By CHIN MUI YOON
A Malaysian has struck it rich in the deserts of the Middle East. Not with oil but with hard work, little sleep and much emphasis on quality.
»It will be an honour for us when people point out our works and say they love it, and then say, ‘Malaysians designed this building!’« TEO AH KHING
The numbers that give the drawing heft are impressive: at almost 500m high and with 108 storeys when it is completed in 2010, the Burj Al Alam in Dubai will be second only to China’s Taipei 101, currently the world’s tallest building at 509m.
And it’s a Malaysian architect who is building this landmark tower in the world’s most cosmopolitan city.
Teo Ah Khing, an unassuming architect from Sarawak, won a fierce competition for the prestigious contract to design the US$1.1bil (RM3.85bil) tower sited in Dubai’s swanky Business Bay.
His design has the slim, organic-looking yet marvellously futuristic structure clad in glass; it’s also architecturally and structurally challenging to construct, as the floors change shapes as the tower rises.
In the United Arab Emirates, only the planned US$800mil (RM2.96bil) Burj Dubai will be taller at about 800m.
(The Burj Dubai’s precise height remains guarded in case New York’s currently-under-construction Freedom Tower attempts to top it, though the World Trade Center’s replacement is currently slated to stop at 541m when it is completed in 2009.)
The Burj Al Alam project sounds like it would be the pinnacle in any architect’s career but you wouldn’t think so to hear Teo tell it.
“Our goal was never to be famous or successful, but to leave our mark in Dubai,” says the refreshingly down to earth 47-year-old at a recent interview in his Kuala Lumpur office.
“It will be an honour for us when people point out our works and say they love it, and then say, ‘Malaysians designed this building!’.”
It is this reluctance to stand solo in the limelight that is the reason most Malaysians have not heard of Teo or his company, TAK Design Consultants, despite the fact that the man and his team have one of the most impressive portfolios we’ve ever seen for a home-grown architect!
Now what can rival the world’s second tallest tower in terms of prestige? Well, Teo is also designing the ultra high-tech Dubai International Financial Centre and the multi-billion dollar Nad Al-Sheba Racecourse that will be the venue for the Dubai World Cup.
And on Teo’s drawing board are plans for the 1,214ha (3,000 acre) Pakistan Armed Forces Headquarters in Islamabad (on which he can’t give many details because it’s top secret!). TAK beat top international architectural firms to win the planet-wide competition for the project in 2005.
Once finished in 2010, the headquarters – which is a humble description for an army city, really – will house the world’s largest number of foot soldiers: exceeding one million. Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf himself presided over the competition and selected TAK from five finalists.
A sound foundation
Despite all this success, Teo remains a most unassuming architect. Other than business reports on projects, there is an almost startling lack of publicity on the man and his works.
He remains humble, almost to a fault, refusing to talk about his achievements initially. Tall and slim with friendly, twinkling eyes, Teo has a genteel air about him and tends to listen rather than air his thoughts. I feel like a dentist throughout our interview, attempting to pry his mouth open to get him to share his thoughts.
The only thing he was overtly eager to show me was the framed drawing of the Putrajaya Masterplan hanging in his boardroom. That project had been his launching pad.
How did he get that first high-profile job? By making a name for himself in architectural circles for being a workhorse who delivers on time and on budget. He is relentless, it seems, when it comes to meeting deadline, a trait that, no doubt, pleased the meticulous former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who oversaw the creation of Cyberjaya.
Malaysian Institute of Architects president Dr Tan Loke Mun says, “We can be sure that we will be sleep-deprived if we’re working with Teo Ah Khing!”
“It’s just that we work in an extremely unforgiving industry; a bad reputation for shoddy work spreads like wildfire and is very difficult to restore,” Teo explains.
“We have no time to waste, or, yes, even sleep sometimes, when there is a project to complete! There are no short cuts to excellence, you can’t bluff in this field, people can see through you in an instant.”
“My motto is that our name is proven in the buildings. We don’t advertise. We just work hard and deliver quality work. This is basic Confucian philosophy and inherent in the Chinese culture.
“It has taken 5,000 years for China to be an economic giant today. It took patience and hard work. When I was 23 and starting out, I never imagined I’d one day be where I am now.
“It’s not because I wasn’t ambitious, but who could imagine all this! But I’m patient and I work step by step. We don’t sell ourselves with a catchy or glamorous name but by building a solid foundation with old-fashioned values. Substance is important beyond anything else.
“We are still in the making. There is nothing great about us. We aspire to go further. As a Miri boy, I would be very proud if I could inspire others to rise above mediocrity and constraints. We let others judge us and let them say that our work is good. Now that’s real praise!”
The Miri boy is the youngest of 10 siblings who grew up in a humble household headed by his fishermen father and grandfather. Young Teo’s interest didn’t lie seawards, though; he always preferred to watch people building houses.
His family sent him to Australia for his architectural degree at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“Having come from traditional Chinese schools, I failed several times as my English was weak and I couldn’t write well!” Teo recalls with a laugh.
Showing early signs of the determination that would stand him in good stead later in life, Teo took extra English lessons. He graduated with Honours in 1986 and was even named Best Architectural Graduate.
Teo went on to become the first Malaysian to earn a Master’s Degree in Urban Design at the very prestigious Harvard University in Massachusetts, the United States. Fed by his fascination with his Eastern roots, Teo’s thesis was on the influence of ancient geomancy on architecture. He cites the great modernists, Le Corbusier, Geoffrey Bawa and Louis Kahn, as inspirations.
(Corbusier, 1887-1965, French architect who introduced the Modern Movement; Bawa, 1919-2003, renowned Sri Lankan architect; Khan, 1902–1974, along with Corbusier, considered a “father” of modern architecture.)
Armed with impressive academic credentials, the young architect gained entry into multinational corporations in the United States, where he got his first taste of mega projects. He was part of a team involved in land planning for the Pearl River Delta Region in China covering Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong.
“The situation made it unfavourable for us to venture abroad, so we decided to build our reputation in our backyard instead,” recalls Teo.
“I had always intended to return home anyway. On hindsight, the economic crisis had proved to be a blessing of sorts as it forced us to start from scratch and to grow steadily one step at a time.”
In 1993 TAK completed the Masterplan for the Kuching City Extension. The Miri Municipal Council awarded them the Master Planning and Landscaping contract for the RM8mil Miri City Fan 1 project, a unique fan-shaped civic park sprawled across 10.5ha (26 acres). TAK completed the project in two years and was awarded the second and third phases.
They remain Teo’s most cherished achievements. “My earliest project is now the soul of the city,” he says happily. “It’s a favourite spot with the locals and many city councils have visited it. I made it cosmopolitan so that everybody belongs here!”
TAK’s big break came in 1996 when Putrajaya Corp invited them and six other firms to review the original plans for the country’s new administrative capital, the Putrajaya Township.
TAK boldly proposed changes, including a major redesign to relocate the government precinct plus the Prime Minister’s Office to a higher plateau overlooking the entire township. Teo also disagreed with plans to level the terrain and urged the preservation of the landscape’s natural contours.
Tun Mahathir approved the plan and TAK was awarded development contracts for prime segments including the coveted Putrajaya Diplomatic Enclave.
From a small company staffed by four partners when it began, TAK today employs 100 professional staff in its offices in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Kuching, Miri, Islamabad and Dubai. The company has branched out into project management and landscaping alongside architectural services.
Building beyond Malaysia
After building a reputation through the Putrajaya Masterplan, the KL Flood Mitigation plan and the RM600mil BioValley projects in Selangor (the biotech equivalent of America’s famous Silicone Valley), Teo gained confidence to venture beyond borders.
In 2005, Bandar Raya Development Bhd invited TAK to participate in a project for the Lahore Golf Course, Hotel and Housing Development in Pakistan.
Soon after, TAK won on its own the important competition to design the Pakistan Armed Forces Headquarters. This was followed by projects for the Army Heritage Museum & Theme Park at the Ayub National Park in Rawalpindi to transform the site into an international tourism development.
In April 2005, TAK was awarded two colossal property development contracts worth US$11bil (RM38.5bil) by Pakistan property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain. TAK was to design and build Phase 7, 8 and 9 of the high-end Bahria Town in Rawalpindi; this included a monorail system.
Pakistan proved pivotal for the company’s future. Many Pakistani businessmen operate in Dubai and one of them invited Teo to venture there.
“I asked my team, ‘Guys, are we ready?’ We had to reassess our team all over again before we decided to accept the invitation,” says Teo.
“Dubai is a rising metropolis. It’s branded the new Constantinople. It’s the crossroads of East and West with over 180 nationals working here. They want to create another New York, but this time they have the chance to do things right.
“We were incredibly honoured to be part of this exciting challenge. Dubai is saturated with international talent; the world’s who’s who is here including famous architecture firms.
“We couldn’t help feeling overawed initially, and asked ourselves, ‘Can a small Malaysian firm successfully compete on such a huge, international platform?’
“But we soon discovered that Dubai practices a liberal policy in awarding contracts. They do not play favourites but seek quality. It is a fair level playing field; there is no discrimination! If there was any discrimination, we wouldn’t have gone this far or even got a foothold here.”
Dubai continues to be the promised land for Teo. He was awarded contracts as landscape architect for all of Dubai Business Bay and for the Arab Renaissance City of the Madinat Al Arab, and Dubai Studio City within Dubailand, the Middle East’s answer to Disneyland that covers an area larger than Monaco.
The trail of success doesn’t end in Dubai, either. Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently invited Teo to vie for lucrative contracts there. Not bad at all for a humble Miri boy!
Building bridges for othersTEO Ah Khing is riding a bullet train to success in Dubai and other countries and he wants to take other Malaysians with him.
He believes this country is rich in talent.
“We only need to look at any issue of PAM’s (Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia, or, in English, Malaysian Institute of Architects) Architecture Malaysia magazine,” he says.
“I took many issues to Dubai and people there are astonished to see the talent we have. Many designs are on par with foreign architecture.”
Teo is always looking for Malaysian architectural firms and individuals to take on parcels of the mega projects handled by his company, TAK Design Consultants.
For the lucrative development of Bahria Town in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, he had sought 20 to 30 construction firms to undertake the job.
“I would like to be known to have promoted at least 50 other firms in my career,” he explains.
“I don’t see this type of mentoring culture practiced here where a big company supports smaller firms and encourages them to grow. I want to change that.
“The world is not made for one architectural firm. TAK didn’t get any support from anyone when we started out. We were looked down upon when we got involved in the Putrajaya project because we were a small company from Sarawak.”
He’s come a long way since then, learnt many lessons the hard way on the journey – and he wants to share those lessons. “For firms seeking to venture overseas, I’d advise them to know their strengths.
“Is the team ready? Are there enough resources and finance?
“Can your team adapt readily to a changing landscape and understand the foreign culture?
“We did a lot of soul searching to assess if we were ready and most of the time we were apprehensive. What if we failed? That’s where team members come in, to support each other. TAK would never have gone far without our dynamic, optimistic team.”
He keeps himself abreast of what’s going in the world by reading widely and subscribing to over 20 magazines ranging from National Geographic to architectural, theatre, society, motoring and lifestyle titles.
“I have to understand what’s happening in the world and why. We can’t live in glass castles and be out of touch,” he explains. “Every time I interview a young architect, I discover that most want to design flashy icons.
“I always ask them, what are the fundamental values, principles and balance in such buildings?
“It takes them quite a while to answer satisfactorily!
“Architecture is rewarding. But an architect is responsible for the building for life. Talented or not, we can never replace sheer hard work and the humility to learn.“